Terror threats and the experiences of cities

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The project includes a large-scale national survey assessing public perceptions of terror threats and attitudes to counterterrorism measures among people living in the UK, France and Germany.”  

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The terrorist attacks in Nice’s Basilica of Notre-Dame last week, came as France entered a second pandemic lockdown and, the BBC reported, “the French are feeling disoriented and frightened”. On Monday as we write, terrorist shootings are ongoing in Vienna’s inner district, amidst restaurants and shopping streets.

Worldwide, terrorism hits the everyday life and vital functions of cities: transport networks, cultural life, hospitality, and social encounters in public space. Since the Twin Towers attacks in 2001, terrorists have shifted away from targeting high-profile, heavily securitised sites like embassies or symbolic buildings, and increasingly hit what are known as 'soft’ targets. These are everyday spaces (markets, pavements, restaurants, public buildings), open to different publics and an organic part of the city’s built and social fabric. As such, they are difficult to protect via defensive infrastructures or security cordons, without altering their experience.

While extensive research is available on the physical security interventions of counterterrorism, what we still know little about is how terror threat and counterterror security measures alter the everyday felt experience of cities for millions of residents. And Importantly, we know little of how these emotive experiences of threat and counterterrorism translate – often profoundly unequally - across different urban communities.

These questions underpin our new research project Atmospheres of (counter)terrorism in European cities which is funded under the ESRC’s Open Research Area in Europe (ORA) with funders ANR (France) and DFG (Germany). Focusing on five European cities – Berlin, Birmingham, Nice, Paris, and Plymouth – the research is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and University of Plymouth (UK), Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany), CY Cergy Paris Université and Institut Paris Region (France). The study uses the idea of atmosphere/ambiance, broadly defined as an immersive and shared felt quality of a situation or a place, to understand the emotive experience of counterterrorism and security/insecurity in cities in Europe.

The project includes a large-scale national survey assessing public perceptions of terror threats and attitudes to counterterrorism measures among people living in the UK, France and Germany. It also includes in-depth contextual research of the five cities, all with diverse urban histories, experiences of attack or threat, and security responses. Together, this represents an unprecedented comparison of how counterterrorism measures in cities are experienced differently across Europe. The results will inform discussions with stakeholders managing terrorism threat and security on the ground, including emergency planners, city centre managers and the police, and the security industry on how to better  account for the diverse emotive experiences of urban security and counterterrorism in cities.

Having deployed extensive counterterrorism measures after the 2016 attacks on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice leads the PACTESUR European project, aimed to develop strategies to secure cities from terrorism. While Nice focuses its strategy on physical deterrent infrastructure, other core PACTESUR members like Turin and Liege instead focus, respectively, on soft technologies for crowd management, and on social approaches like radicalization prevention. It is, however, artificial to treat separately social behaviours and the spaces, infrastructures and architectures where these behaviours emerge and can be prevented or deterred. The project embraces this principle and develops it, studying the relationship between urban place and people’s subjective and collective experience amidst contemporary security challenges.

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